Sentencing reform dies for third straight year after Fann blocks Senate vote

By: - June 30, 2021 4:03 pm

Arizona State Prison Complex – Lewis. Image from Google Earth

Arizona will continue to have some of the strictest criminal sentencing laws in the country after Senate President Karen Fann refused to let the Senate vote on a bill that would allow some nonviolent inmates to earn early releases.

With the legislative session nearing its end on Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, told the Arizona Mirror that Fann wouldn’t schedule Senate Bill 1064 for a vote in the Senate.

“It’s disheartening that we’re not doing more for criminal justice reform, being one of the few states left in the union that has failed to not only reform our system but to provide adequate programming for those people that are released,” Blackman said, expressing his “disappointment in our whole legislative system that we had a chance to keep communities safe, to reduce recidivism, lower the taxpayer costs, provide programming, and we just didn’t do it.”

Blackman’s plan had overwhelming support in the House. His House Bill 2713 passed with 47 votes in February before it hit a roadblock in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, allowed the proposal to be amended onto his bill, SB1064, which the House passed 50-8 earlier this week.

But the bill lacked the support of Fann, who decides whether bills receive votes in the Senate. The Prescott Republican did not respond to a message from the Arizona Mirror about why she killed the bill, but wrote on Twitter that the majority of the Senate GOP caucus opposed the legislation.

“Defunding the police , lack of probation officers and the list of horrible offenses that allowed criminals back on the street was a bridge too far,” Fann wrote.

Mesnard said a Senate Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday evinced serious opposition among most GOP senators. He said there was a lot of support for the provision to give drug offenders earlier release dates. But expanded earned release credits for crimes with victims generated severe hostility, even with violent crimes and sex crimes excluded.

Additionally, concerns about rising crime rates across the U.S. contributed to opposition among Republican senators, Mesnard said. And he noted that senators had only a short amount time to learn about the bill and

“The bill just got decimated,” Mesnard said. “I’m not sure that I had a single other Republican vote in the caucus, and leadership was strongly opposed. The governor’s office had also expressed some reservations.”

Republicans hold a 16-14 majority in the Senate, meaning Mesnard would need at least one other GOP colleague to join him and the Democrats in order to pass SB1604 out of the chamber.

Arizona’s 1993 “truth in sentencing” law requires inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences. They are eligible to serve out the remainder under community supervision if they complete substance abuse or other self-improvement programs while in prison. 

Blackman’s proposal would have dramatically expanded the availability of earned release credits, which allow inmates to earn a certain number of days off their sentences for every fixed number of days they serve behind bars. 

Inmates convicted only of drug offenses, who are already eligible for early release after serving 70% of their sentences, would be eligible to earn up to two-thirds off of their sentences. Other inmates who weren’t convicted of violent offenses, sex crimes and other excluded offenses would be able to earn up to half off of their sentences. Earned release credits would be dependent on inmates completing substance abuse or other programming. 

Lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez, who represents Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, both of which have been advocates for sentencing reform measures in the legislature, was frustrated by the death of SB1064.

“This legislation continues to not make it across the finish line for reasons that I really can’t understand. It would have helped a lot of people. We have a mass incarceration problem and just continue to refuse to solve it,” she said.

Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. In March, U.S. News and World Report wrote that Arizona’s rate of 558 inmates per 100,000 people was the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country. Nationally, 419 of every 100,000 people are incarcerated, the article reported. 

As of May there were more than 36,000 people incarcerated in Arizona prisons, according to data from the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry

Blackman has been trying to pass his sentencing reform plan since arriving at the legislature in 2019, and this marks the third straight year that Blackman’s proposal to dramatically expand the use of earned release credits fell short, largely stymied by key Republicans who refuse to put his proposals up for a vote.

In 2019, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee wouldn’t give Blackman’s bill a hearing. A similar bill passed out of the House in 2020, but never received a hearing in the Senate after the COVID-19 outbreak cut the legislative session short. 

This year, his HB2713 passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, but Sen. Warren Petersen wouldn’t hear the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. Amending the plan onto Mesnard’s SB1064 allowed it to bypass Petersen’s committee, but it hit another roadblock on Wednesday when Fann refused to hear it, as well.

Blackman is running out of time to pass his proposal. He’s running for Congress and next year will be his final legislative session. And Fann and Petersen will still be in their positions, making it unlikely that he can get a sentencing reform bill past them, at least in its current form.

Nonetheless, Blackman said he plans to run similar legislation again in 2022. He warned that if the legislature doesn’t pass some kind of sentencing reform, Arizona could see a ballot measure that would go much further than he and other sentencing reform advocates want, and then the state could be stuck with a more progressive law that lawmakers couldn’t change due to the Voter Protection Act. 

“And then we are going to be stuck with legislation that doesn’t make our community safe, that is not programming folks to where they should be programmed. And then they’re going to look at my bill and wish that they would have passed it. This is common-sense reform,” Blackman said. 

Criminal justice reform advocates attempted to expand the use of earned release credits through a citizen initiative last year, but failed to collect enough signatures to put it on the November ballot after signature-gathering efforts were halted because of the pandemic.

Rodriguez said criminal justice reform advocates have already been considering the possibility of another ballot measure campaign in 2022. 

“Several folks within the criminal justice reform community have mentioned a need to go back to the ballot, but there’s nothing concrete at this time. I think everyone was waiting to see what would happen this session,” she said.

Though Blackman had no criticism for Fann, he had harsh words for unnamed lawmakers whom he said had worked to torpedo his proposal.

“We have gone to the table in good faith with negotiations and stakeholder meetings and inviting everyone to stakeholder meetings,” he said. “However, I have not received the same in good faith. There have been people in our legislative chambers that have been actively trying to kill this bill when I was negotiating in good faith.”

Blackman would not say which lawmakers he was referring to.

This story has been updated to include comments from Senate President Karen Fann and Sen. J.D. Mesnard.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”